iTS or ItS?

Perhaps I’m in a funk but recently, I’ve felt compelled to criticize the thinking of some of my favorite class of colleagues: instructional technology folks.

In a recent post, the Cog Dog argued that instructional technology staff, and by that I mean the ones who work with faculty in developing their teaching (ITS’ in UMW parlance), are generally expected by administrations and faculty to provide discrete solutions to teaching problems (or discrete improvements to teaching issues). Cog Dog calls these (fish) nuggets. He proposes, instead, that ITS’ teach faculty to fish, teaching them enough about new technology tools to get started, but then encouraging them to explore those tools to answer their own questions.

I’m not unsympathetic to CogDog’s plaints, but let me give a faculty perspective.

The basic problem here is substantially bigger: Ph.D.s are rarely trained to teach. At some level, they are insecure about their teaching, but they mask this by assuming that their teaching is beyond reproach. The culture of Ph.D.s says that teaching is something we Ph.D.s all know intuitively how to do. It’s not something we talk about except in generalities. Sometimes risk-taking junior faculty may consult with senior faculty about some aspect of their teaching. (E.g. How do I get my students to participate effectively in a class discussion?) But the notion of consulting with someone other than a faculty member is unthinkable. After all, only faculty know how to teach, and that by virtue of their Ph.D.

So the problem Cog Dog raises is really one of cultural change, moving from a culture of solitary work, where faculty are the sole teachers in their courses (albeit supported on selected narrow technical issues by IT folks, librarians, etc.) to one of collaborative work, where the teaching is provided by a team of experts. What the faculty member brings to the table is content expertise, and certainly more or less teaching experience. But the other members of the teaching team bring their own areas of expertise, which a wise faculty member will take advantage of.

Another part of the problem is technology. I believe that faculty (and administrators) find it too easy to dismiss what our ITS’ are doing by writing it off as merely technology, instead of thinking of it correctly as instructional design. After all, many faculty think, “I don’t do technology.” I’m still trying to get our ITS’ to emphasize the I in what they do over the T.

My take is that all teaching incorporates technology, though the technology may be traditional and low tech, like lecture and chalk board, or it may be cutting edge and higher tech, like Second Life. There are, indeed, a wide range of possibilities that need to be considered. So dismissing ITS’ because they preach technology is a red herring. The real question, and this is one that ITS’ can help faculty with, is how to design a course to achieve one’s instructional goals? One part of that, but only a part, is the appropriate technologies to use. It will only be when faculty (and the administration) begins to think of ITS’ as Instructional specialists, that we will make substantial, broad-based progress towards Cog Dog’s goals.

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2 Responses to iTS or ItS?

  1. Alan Levine says:

    I appreciate criticism Jerry, thats why I lob some of these post out there. Re-reading what i wrote I see some may take what I was suggestion as either or (all fishing v all nuggets) – when really I intended wa a mix more in the middle.

    Not everyone is adept at fishing. I stink. But I try. And I may keep a bag of nuggets for munching 😉

    Yes, I agree it is a cultural change, but IMHO. also on the individual part. It seems that if ITS’ always provide workshops, “job aids”, training, recipes, we don’t set up the motivation to learn a little fishing. We set up faculty to be dependent or to apply self talk of “I cant do technology”.

  2. Laura says:

    If it’s true that faculty believe that the Ph.D. bestows some kind of teaching expertise on them, and that therefore only people with Ph.D.’s can give teaching advice, then why aren’t a million faculty calling me? I have a Ph.D., a Ph.D. with a focus on teaching with technology. And yet, I’m viewed with skepticism. I’m think it’s more than that. The influx of technologists into schools, most of whom are not just calling for more technology, but for using technology to transform education, has made (more) visible the fact that many faculty just don’t want to put the time into teaching that such transformation would require. I don’t necessarily blame faculty for that. They’re simply part of a system that in theory is supposed to be one in which students learn, but in reality sometimes becomes a system where learning is secondary to other agendas. There are a lot of faculty who would like to learn to fish, but who feel pressure to do otherwise. It’s a systemic problem that I think needs to be fixed–and soon.

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